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Grasser v. Centerton Country Day School

August 14, 2008

BARBARA A. GRASSER, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CENTERTON COUNTRY DAY SCHOOL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Cumberland County, Law Division, Docket No. L-0552-05.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 3, 2008

Before Judges Graves and Alvarez.

Defendant, Centerton County Day School, appeals from the denial of a motion for judgment notwithstanding a jury's verdict which awarded plaintiff, Barbara A. Grasser, damages totaling $19,800 pursuant to New Jersey's Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), N.J.S.A. 34:19-1 to -8. Plaintiff was also awarded counsel fees of $13,146, costs in the amount of $1028.40, and pre-judgment interest of $1292.16. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The facts developed at trial require only brief summary. For approximately six years plaintiff was employed by defendant; for approximately the last two years of this time, she worked as the program director at the Upper Deerfield Preschool. Defendant is the entity which operates the preschool. On the morning of June 3, 2004, two students were discovered to have suspected infectious ringworm and were sent home. Believing all the children in the school had been exposed, and erroneously believing that the law required her to do so, plaintiff placed a written notice of the possibility of exposure in each child's mailbox to be taken home at the close of the day.

When Jean Scarani, the owner of the pre-school, returned, she removed the few notices which remained from the mailboxes. Scarani asked plaintiff "[w]ho gave [plaintiff] permission" to generate the notice, and then Scarani informed plaintiff that "she didn't want any negative news going out of the school." Plaintiff, upset by the comments, then left the school, and returned for the sole purpose of meeting with Scarani to discuss the incident. At that meeting, plaintiff testified she was "stripped" of all authority as director, and was basically relegated to doing paperwork in the office. Plaintiff subsequently gave Scarani two weeks notice, and Scarani forbid her from returning to the school while it was in operation. As a result, after the meeting, plaintiff never returned. The complaint seeking damages under CEPA followed.

At the close of plaintiff's case, defendant unsuccessfully moved for a directed verdict. After the jury returned its verdict awarding damages to plaintiff, defendant filed a notice of motion seeking judgment notwithstanding the verdict (n.o.v.) pursuant to Rule 4:40-2(b), and a new trial pursuant to Rule 4:49-1.

The Law Division judge said:

Regrettably, I'm going to deny the Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict. I - - I disagree with the verdict, let me be candid about that. The verdict must shock the judicial conscience for me to overturn it. I can't simply substitute my judgment for that of the jury, because I would have reached the opposite conclusion -

- I would have reached the opposite - - if I was a juror, I would not have voted with them. I - - I don't believe that the - - I - - I don't believe that the requirement of the owner of the business to run everything by her, particularly when it was untested by any further time to see what that really meant, was such that if I were involved in the verdict, that I would have agreed with it. I don't agree with it. I just totally don't agree with the verdict. But, I - - it doesn't mean that I am convinced that there is a miscarriage of justice under the law, which is the heavy burden that I have to reach to set that verdict aside.

So, I am denying the motion for a new trial, and I'm being candid that I disagree with it, but I don't think I have the power to overturn it.

Defendant's sole argument on appeal is as follows:

Plaintiff's proofs, even when considered in their most favorable light, do not establish a cause of action under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying defendant's Motions seeking an ...


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